STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The global economic downturn has touched China's manufacturing, and it's altering a major trend in migration. For the past few decades, migrant Chinese workers have been going from poor villages inland to factory towns near the coast. Now, some of those workers are looking for work closer to home. And we're going to report this morning on the challenges that China faces in building a modern industrial workforce. It's the second part of our look at China's Pearl River Delta. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.
(Soundbite of announcement, Guangzhou railway station)
ANTHONY KUHN: At the Guangzhou railway station, the tide of migrant labor ebbs out and flows in with the lunar new year. The Year of the Ox is still more than a month away, but factory closures and a business slowdown mean that more migrants are on the move early this year. They tote their belongings packed into suitcases, hanging from shoulder poles, or brimming in plastic buckets.
Twenty-five-year-old Yang Yunyao recently quit his factory job embroidering decorations on clothes. He's waiting to go home to rural Guizhou Province. He said he left his job out of despair and boredom.
Mr. YANG YUNYAO (Chinese Embroiderer): (Through Translator) The whole market is depressed, so we had nothing to do. We'd just watch TV or roam the streets and then go to sleep. My boss wanted me to stay on. He offered to keep paying me even if there was no work to do, but I didn't want to get paid for doing nothing.
KUHN: China, on the whole, still has a labor surplus. But since 2004, there's been a shortage of unskilled young migrants to work in the delta's factories. Most migrants would rather work closer to home, and now there are more opportunities there. This year, China's fiscal-stimulus package means lots of infrastructure spending and job creation in the inland provinces. There will also be lots of spending to rebuild parts of Sichuan province devastated by the May 12 earthquake there. Wu Bangzhong is headed home to Sichuan, and he doubts he'll be back after the new year.
Mr. WU BANGZHONG: (Through Translator) My friend offered me a job building roads at home. I have no future and hope of making more money here in the delta. I'm already this old, so I'll just head home early for the holiday.
KUHN: Speaking to some migrants, you really feel their youthful enterprise and economic progress. But speak to others, such as Mr. Wu, and you also hear about rootless drifting and loneliness. Wu is 35, and factories seldom hire people his age unless they've got technical or managerial skills. Wu says those things are out of his reach.
Mr. WU: (Through Translator) We have no educational degrees. Every year, there are new graduates who are more competitive than we are. The market changes too fast for us to keep up, and we're very quickly made obsolete.
KUHN: In response to the current economic crisis, Chinese officials and experts say the Pearl River Delta's only hope is to upgrade its labor-intensive industries. But experts point out that to add more value to products, you need better-trained workers. Chen Xinmin is director of the Institute for Human Resources Management at South China Normal University in Guangzhou.
Mr. CHEN XINMIN (Director, Institute for Human Resources Management, South China Normal University): (Chinese spoken)
KUHN: Over the past 30 years, the delta has relied on labor from other provinces, he says. In future, developing our own province's labor resources will be a key issue. Guangdong's economy can only be upgraded and developed if we make human resources a priority.
But critics say that Guangdong is not investing enough in job training, either for migrants or the local workforce. Liu Kaiming is director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a nongovernmental organization that trains and advocates for migrant workers. Liu says that in recent decades, the Pearl River Delta has done something amazing. It's built a large industrial base, but without a stable industrial workforce.
Mr. LIU KAIMING (Director, Institute of Contemporary Observation): (Through Translator) The government is only now getting a few resources to spend on training migrant laborers, but the resources all go to government-controlled organizations that are very ineffective. There are only a few NGOs like ours involved in job training, and we're just a drop in the bucket.
(Soundbite of announcement, Guangzhou railway station)
KUHN: Above the entrance to the Guangzhou train station is written, My City, My Home. But China's household registration system, which keeps out-of-towners from getting welfare benefits, means that it's very hard for migrants to settle permanently in the delta. Chinese police are unwilling to dismantle the system anytime soon. And until they do, China's hardworking migrants will remain sojourners in their own country. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Guangzhou, China.
INSKEEP: We'll return tomorrow to China's Pearl River Delta. In just a few decades, one so-called special economic zone there grew from 30,000 inhabitants to 12 million.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.